Tennis: Nadal chasing a record fifth

Rafael Nadal wants a record fifth French Open. Roger Federer wants a record-equalling 14th Grand Slam event after beating the previously unbeatable Nadal on clay recently. Who will win?

Nadal's path had the air of a minefield about it yesterday when he was handed potential clashes with Lleyton Hewitt as well as Spanish compatriots David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco.

The top seed will begin his campaign against a qualifier, before a possible third round clash with the Australian former world No. 1 Hewitt, who showed his claycourt ability in April at Houston.

Nadal, who has never lost at Roland Garros in 28 matches, beat Hewitt in the fourth round in 2005 and 2006.

Claycourt specialist Ferrer, twice a quarter-finalist, is a possible fourth round opponent with Verdasco a likely last eight rival.

"I have won in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and been in the final in Madrid," said Nadal, whose 33-match claycourt winning streak was brought to an end by Federer in Spain at the weekend. "It's almost a perfect claycourt season. I'm happy with the way I've been playing. The conditions here are different to Madrid where the court was fast and the balls were flying."

Second seed Federer, still searching for an elusive Roland Garros title to add to his 13 majors and thus equal Pete Sampras' record of 14, lost the last three finals to Nadal. He starts against Spain's Alberto Montanes. Old American rival Andy Roddick is seeded to face him in the last eight.

Third seeded Scotsman Andy Murray renews his rivalry with Argentinians when he meets Juan Ignacio Chela, while fourth seed Novak Djokovic, a semifinalist in the last two years, faces Nicolas Lapentti of Ecuador.

If the seeding works to plan, Nadal would face Murray in the semifinals while Djokovic would take on Federer. Nadal will be happy to see Djokovic in the other half of the draw having had to overcome three match points in a four-hour, Madrid Masters semifinal against him.

That effort left the Spaniard exhausted by the time he played Federer in the final with the Swiss coasting to his first trophy of 2009.

"I'm mentally and physically fresh," said Federer. "My game is fine, I've practised well and have had no problems in adapting to the different conditions. The win in Madrid was a big boost."

Djokovic is one of the form players on clay, finishing runner-up to Nadal in Monte Carlo and Rome and winning in Belgrade.

The Spain victory would have gone some way towards healing Federer's dented pride since his 6-1 6-3 6-0 mauling by Nadal in Paris 12 months ago.

Add in two five-set final losses to Nadal at last year's Wimbledon and the 2009 Australian Open, it is little wonder Federer was a tearful wreck in Melbourne.

Nadal's run has resulted in many people, including Andre Agassi, tipping him to complete a rare calendar Grand Slam but Federer intends to play spoilsport.

"I think when a guy wins the Australian Open and his better surface is clay then sure there is a big chance that he might go two for two," said the 27-year-old Swiss, who has been runner-up in Paris for the last three years.

"But I came very close a few times and it's not the easiest thing to do. There are guys who don't want to allow him to do that and I am the first guy [in that queue]. Whereas a couple of weeks ago I was still a little bit unsure about my game and not sure if I could win the French Open, I'm now very excited about going to Paris."

FULFILLING FIVE FINALS

No one has ever won five French Open titles. Rafael Nadal has never lost a match (28-0) in four appearances at Roland Garros.

Tomorrow, he begins his quest for an unprecedented fifth consecutive French Open title.

Here are the six men who have come closest to five in a row at Roland Garros in the Open Era, beginning in 1968:

Bjorn Borg: Won four straight titles from 1978 to '81 but never played for a fifth, retiring at the age of 25 at the end of the 1981 season. Also won in 1974 and 1975, giving him six championships in eight years. Lost in the 1976 quarter-finals to Adriano Panatta in four sets and did not play in 1977. Career record at Roland Garros: 49-2 (.961).

Ivan Lendl: Won three titles in four straight finals appearances (1984-87), losing the 1985 final to Mats Wilander. Reached the final five times in seven years. Career record at Roland Garros: 53-12.Gustavo Kuerten: Won three titles over a five-year period (1997-2001) for only three major victories of his career. Record at Roland Garros: 36-7.

Mats Wilander: Won three titles, reaching the final five times in seven years (1982-88). Career record at Roland Garros: 47-9.

Jim Courier: Won two titles (1991-92) in three consecutive appearances in the final. Career record at Roland Garros: 40-9.

Sergi Bruguera: Won back-to-back titles (1993-94) and reached three finals in a span of five years. Career record at Roland Garros: 32-10.

- AGENCIES

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